For recent Music Mondays, I’ve taken to writing posts about albums I like. I was all set to do this for Gillian Welch, but then I realized I couldn’t choose between her last two albums, Soul Journey and The Harrow and the Harvest. And, really, since Gillian is one of the two or three artists I’ve listened to the most in the last six months, I figured she deserved a longer post that talks about why I love her music so much, and why I love those two very different but equally awesome albums.
First comes the part where I talk about how I discovered Gillian’s music. I was a sophomore in college, and I went to the movies with a girl as part of one of those evenings that you hope will be a date because you like the girl, but you know it’s not because she’s not really interested in you. We saw a movie called O Brother Where Art Thou. I know, you’re shocked, shocked! that this was where I first heard of Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss and Emmylou Harris and bluegrass music–just like everyone else my age. But seriously, I spent most of my teenage years listening to hip hop. Even my knowledge of rock music was hardly encyclopedic back then. Country music? Fucking forget it.
But then I found myself tapping my feet to the music, and it was like, hey, wait a second, this isn’t corny Garth Brooks my-girl-left-me-and-stole-my-pickup-truck music. This country music sounds … good. I bought the movie soundtrack, just like everyone else, and totally played it out. Really, if you want to trace how my musical tastes got where they are today, the night I went to see O Brother is a pretty good place to start. (Thanks, Coen Brothers!) There are great artists all over that album, but the one whose music really hit me was Gillian Welch.
Now’s the part where I mention that when you say “Gillian Welch,” you’re not just talking about Gillian Welch. “Gillian Welch” is really a duo, with the eponymous singer and her longtime partner, David Rawlings. Welch grew up in L.A., raised by adoptive parents who wrote music for the Carol Burnett Show. She went to school at UC Santa Cruz and then the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she met Rawlings. In the early ’90s they moved to Nashville, as people trying to make it as country singers are wont to do, where they eventually met T-Bone Burnett, the producer extraordinaire who was the man behind the soundtrack of O Brother and pretty much any other movie that has good music in it. (Fun fact: Gillian appears in one scene in the film, as a woman trying to buy a copy of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ Man of Constant Sorrow.)
Their first album, Revival, came out in 1996 and scored a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. Welch played guitar and banjo and sang, and Rawlings played a unique, virtuosic lead guitar and sang harmony that formed perfectly to Gillian’s voice. The songs had old souls, telling stories of orphan girls and moonshiners, flatbed Fords on dusty roads and Jesus on the cross. They were slow and acoustic and felt like they’d been unearthed from some long lost cache of Depression-era songs. And yet, there was something new about the way the bluegrass, gospel, traditional country, and rock elements came together. In recent years, tastemakers (or rather, music industry flaks who think they have to label artists to sell them to listeners) have popularized the term “Americana” to refer to the suddenly popular genre of revived traditional American music, and there is no more “Americana” group than Welch and Rawlings. Just watch them do the bluegrass/gospel standard I’ll Fly Away.
They followed Revival with the similarly dark Hell Among the Yearlings, best known for its lead track, Caleb Meyer, which cleverly flips the script on the classic conventions of a murder ballad by telling the story of a farm girl who cuts a man’s throat to ward off an attempted rape. Then came Time (The Revelator), which, while still traditional, included odes to Elvis and a live recording of I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll.
As great as those albums are, I didn’t fully dive into Gillian Welch’s music until I heard their 2003 album Soul Journey. It’s a departure from their earlier albums, as they incorporated bass, drums, and electric instruments into the recordings (the first thing you hear on the album is a bass guitar). I was instantly enchanted by the album’s opening track, Look at Miss Ohio, a song about running away from responsibility that somehow manages to be melancholy and uplifting at the same time, and that features one of my favorite lyrics in all of pop music: “I wanna do right, but not right now.”
The next track on the album is a soulful cover of the great Mississippi John Hurt’s blues song Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor, and the third track is one of my personal favorites, Wayside/Back In Time, featuring another verse that struck a chord deeply with me: “Too much beer and whiskey to ever be employed/And when I got to Nashville, there was too much soldier’s joy.”
Beyond those songs, Soul Journey featured some of Gillian’s most personal songwriting. No One Knows My Name opens with the lyrics, “My mother was just a girl, seventeen … and my dad was passing through, doing things a man will do,” which reflect the totality of her knowledge of her birth parents, who gave her up for adoption immediately after she was born. The album closes with Wrecking Ball, a song about her wild and crazy days in a California oceanside college town (something I can definitely relate t0).
The duo didn’t release an album for eight years after Soul Journey. When they finally did, what came was The Harrow and the Harvest, which returned to their previous milieu of acoustic duets. Their duet style aged over the years like fine whiskey in an oak barrel, and The Harrow and the Harvest was their best album yet, a collection of ten songs that Welch referred to as “ten kinds of sadness” in an NPR interview. Rawlings does his best guitar work on these songs, in particular on the uptempo The Way It Goes and the dark album opener Scarlet Town. I hesitate to even single out any other tracks on this album, because they’re all so good, but Hard Times really is a standout. It’s an incredibly sad song about a lonely farmer watching his way of life slip away with the passing of time, and yet it accomplishes the same trick as Miss Ohio did, being depressing and inspiring at the same time, with the chorus, “Hard times/Ain’t gonna rule my mind, no more.”
Welch and Rawlings played a 40-minute set at the Warren Hellman tribute show in San Francisco last year, largely composed of songs from The Harrow and the Harvest. Some noble soul recorded the whole set, and if I’ve done my job and gotten you interested in this duo’s wonderful music, watching the video is a great way to get a sense of what they’re all about. The set opens with Hard Times, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be hooked from the very first notes.